Op-Ed: Sowing the Seeds of Social Change in the South Bronx
“I am not a farmer. I’m a parent, a resident and a teacher,” I said at the opening of my presentation at the January TEDx Manhattan conference, “Changing the Way We Eat.” I didn’t need a pitchfork or overalls to explain how growing produce in my science classroom transformed the way my students treat their relationship to food, community and employment.
I am a special education teacher at the Discovery School in the South Bronx. Our students are the most marginalized and disenfranchised in New York City. They live in the poorest congressional district in America and the situation is not improving. They are getting fatter, sicker and poorer — they come to school hungrier and needier than ever.
In 2009, we built an “edible wall” to grow fresh vegetables in our science classroom. I had been gardening for years and at the time, I saw this as an opportunity to engage students in the curriculum — I wasn’t looking to grow food.
Six months later, my students were routinely growing enough food in one classroom to feed 450 students a gourmet vegetarian meal every 90 days. That’s fresh and direct Bronx-style, zero miles to the plate!
My students’ attendance rate increased from 43 to 90 percent. Our student-run farmer’s market selling student-grown produce put the bake sale to shame. We regularly attracted over 500 local parents and neighborhood residents in a school that usually has to fight just to get 50 parents to attend a parent-teacher night. Our “Fresh Squeezed Bronx” tagline became the talk of the town.
A video of South Bronx teacher Stephen Ritz’s presentation the TEDx Manhattan conference in January of 2012. Ritz, together with his class and community members, has grown 25,000 pounds of vegetables in the Bronx while improving his students’ attendance and academic performance.
Moreover, the students learned construction skills from building the infrastructure of urban farming. They translated that hands-on experience into a business repairing affordable housing in the South Bronx. Just a stone’s throw from the Kingsbridge Armory, an edifice that’s at the heart of a citywide debate around living wage, my students comprised the youngest nationally certified workforce in America, all earning living wage of $15 to $20 per hour while attending high school.
By the spring of 2010, we had founded Green Bronx Machine, a nonprofit organization that expanded our work beyond the classroom. We’ve installed green roofs and green walls at Rockefeller Center, the John Hancock Tower in Boston and multi-million dollar private residences in Long Island. From the South Bronx to Southampton! The first 10 students who participated in the Green Bronx Machine program went from being super-sized and under-credited to healthy, fit high school graduates who are all attending college. Our second cohort of 10 students are on track to graduate at the end of this year.
A video promoting the launch of Green Bronx Machine, a nonprofit organization dedicated to greening the landscapes and mindsets of urban America.
The December 2011 issue of Principal Leadership magazine highlighted our program as an exemplar of service learning. These are hard-earned accolades. We come to school early and stay late. We develop patience, team work and camaraderie.
I find these skills to be critical to success in life, and 25,000 pounds of student-grown vegetables later, I’ve come to realize the best thing we’ve grown is socially conscious young adults — engaged citizens who are ready, willing and able to contribute to a new local economy.
Although our program at Discovery School closed in August 2011, we’re taking the show on the road. At the end of February, we’ll present our work to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a teachers union conference on green schools in Denver. The Blue Green Alliance, a grassroots initiative to create green jobs, has exposed our work in other cities like Philadelphia, Houston and Detroit. People want what we have. We’re exporting Bronx talent in ways we never expected.
I’m also planning to take on a new cohort of special needs, at-risk students. I want the worst of the worst. Based on my experience over the past three years, we’ll turn them into the best of the best.
Stephen Ritz is a teacher and administrator at the Discovery School in the South Bronx and is the founder of Green Bronx Machine. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and New York City government recognized him for his work with inner city youth.